On the 16th of March 1244, in France, at the Château de Montségur, after a protracted siege, about 215 Cathars who had not renounced their creed threw themselves of their own will into the pyres prepared for them by the crusaders sent to convert or exterminate them.
But who were these Cathars (in Greek katharoi – the pure ones) and how are they linked to a small medieval cemetery, now decrepit, in the north of Greece?
The Cathars were the last in a long series of dualistic Christian cults, unrecognized and persecuted by the official Church, be it Orthodox or Catholic.
The story begins in Armenia and Asia Minor, where under the influence of Gnostic and Manichean beliefs, the Paulician sect came into existence.
The beginnings of the Bogomils
The Paulicians most likely took their name from the apostle Paul or from Paul, the Bishop of Samosata. Their creed became so widespread that for a short period of time they even created an independent state, with the capital at Tephrike. They considered themselves the “true Christians”, unlike the “Romans” who followed the official doctrine.
They believed that there were two Gods, one good and one evil. The good one was the Creator of the heavens and of the soul, while the evil one was Satan, the Creator of Earth, who reigns over the body and the material world.
These two Gods were both creators, one Good, of the soul, and the other one Evil, of the body which functioned as a prison of the soul in the material world.
The dogmatic differences and their tendency towards autonomy rapidly brought them into conflict with the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire.
Thus, after a conflict that lasted for about two centuries, the defeated Paulicians were moved into Thracia, an area located today in southern Bulgaria and the north of Greece, in Macedonia. The colonies of the Paulicians were mainly centred around Philippopolis, today known as Plovdiv, one of the oldest cities, if not the oldest, in Europe.
There, they rapidly started to spread their ideas among the mainly Slavic population of the area. Their catechism gave birth to a related, albeit more peaceful cult, the Bogomils.
How did the Bogomil dogma come into being?
The name is most likely derived from a monk from about 1050, a fervent follower of the cult, named Bogomil (the one who loves God) or Filotheos, the Greek equivalent of the name.
Another version, the most likely one, would be that the name of the cult comes from the Slavonic words Bog (God) and miluy (have mercy), the equivalent of “Kyrie Eleison”.
Other names they chose for themselves or were given to them by outsiders were Babuns, Patarenes and Torbesh, from the Bulgarian torba, which means “bag”. They were called like this due to the bag they always carried to gather alms.
This cult was also dualistic in nature. “The ones who love God”, the Bogomils, believed that the material world was created and ruled by Satan, an idea also to be partially found in the New Testament.
Satan, Sathanas or Satanail is the Demiurge, namely the creator of the Earth and Man. Satan is the elder son of God, the younger one being Jesus, although some sources claim the opposite, with Jesus being the elder one. The only pure and innocent element is the soul. Satan stole it from God and placed it cunningly and with great difficulty into the material body fashioned by him. Another version is that Satan asked God to send a part of his soul into Man.
Thus, anything related to the carnal world was a sin. Eating meat, drinking, sex, riches, everything was to be condemned. This austerity was obviously almost impossible to observe even by themselves, so among them there was an elite, the so-called perfecti (lat.) or teleioi (gr.). The rest of them were called believers and were allowed to have families and live normally.
They did not accept the authority of the official church and therefore neither of the state, which represented the earthly powers. They did not accept the sacraments, such as Communion, the cult of the Cross, of the saints, Baptism. Neither did they accept other prayers apart from the Lord’s Prayer. They rejected the teachings of the Old Testament and accepted only the New Testament, but reinterpreted in their own way, as they considered that the miracles enacted by Jesus were not real, but merely symbolic.
Slowly but steadily, Bogomilism spread itself especially in Bulgaria. Simple people received Christian teachings more easily, even in their heretical form, from those who were themselves simple and poor, who were not part of the official Church and the corrupt ruling class which wallowed in riches. These beliefs obviously brought them into conflict with the Orthodox Church and state authority.
In order to somehow surive in a hostile environment without entering in direct conflict with the central power, they tried to display an “orthodox” image. This subterfuge didn’t last very long, however. Many men of the cloth, well-known and well-read priests and monks of the time, such as Euthymios Zigabenos, who wrote a book named The Panoply of Doctrine, started to write entire works against them. The truth is that most of what we now know about them comes precisely from these writings.
Bogomilism – a cult persecuted by the Church and the state
Thus, their fate was sealed. Anna Comnena (Anna Komnene) states in her work The Alexiad, written as a tribute to her father, the Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos (11th century), that because he considered them as being primarily responsible for the various uprisings which happened in the Byzantine Empire and of allying themselves with the enemies of the state, the Pechenegs and the Normans, he decided to end his tolerant policy and instead take drastic measures against them.
Thus, around 1110, towards the end of his life, Alexios initiated the persecution against them. Following the torture he was subjected to, a Bogomil named Divlatios indicated a monk called Vasileios (Basil) as being the leader.
Alexios, one of the wisest emperors of the Eastern Roman Empire, was is no hurry to arrest him. On the contrary, he invited Vasileios to his palace, where he appeared interested in hearing out the Bogomil dogma and even becoming a follower of it, with only his brother nearby.
In the beginning, Vasileios was cautious and feigned ignorance, but following the emperor’s praise and kind words, began to enthusiastically reveal the secrets of his cult, without knowing that behind a partition were hidden the courtiers, the military officers, the high priests of Constantinople along with the Patriarch, Nikolaos Grammatikos, but above all a secretary who wrote down all he said.
When he was done, the partition was removed and Vasileios realized he had been led into a trap. However, he did not repent, nor did he take back what he had said. He was sentenced to death by immolation, a method of execution used mainly by the Catholic Inquisition in the following centuries, but he did not relent, believeing that he would be saved by angels.
Vasileios was burned at the stake and Anna Komnena spares no detail describing his last moments, when he was convinced that angels would come down from Heaven in order to rescue him, thus refusing to repent, and was then thrown into the unforgiving flames.
This, however, was just one case throughout the long history of the persecution of Bogomils. The truth is that the Bogomils never ran out of two things, namely faith in their cult and persecution. Their creed spread in the entire area, especially among the lower, poorer classes, even reaching Mount Athos.
The spread of this creed into the Balkans and Western Europe
The Bogomils were hunted, burned at the stake and forced to convert by the Byzantine emperors. Between 1186 and 1193, during the Second Bulgarian Empire, they were condemned by the ecumenical council at Tarnovo and afterwards banished by the Bulgarian tsar Boris. They then took refuge in Serbia, where after a while their creed was once more condemned by the official church and the famous Serbian king, Stefan Nemaja (12th century), chased them away and burned all their books that he could get his hand on.
Once thrown out of Serbia, the Bogomil believers retreated into Bosnia and Dalmatia, where they continued their activity and influenced, if not outright created, the Bosnian Church, an entity considered heretical by both the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches. However, they did not find peace there either. The Kingdom of Hungary sent out several crusades against them. However, they were not succesful in their intended purpose.
However, under the constant pressure from the Catholic Church, many converted to Catholicism. After the Ottoman conquest of Bosnia in 1463, due to a somewhat justified grudge against the Church, most of them converted quite easily to Islam. Only the Stećci, the famous funeral stones found in the Bosnian medieval necropoles, still remind us of them.
Many also took refuge in territory that now belongs to Romania, mingling with the local population and leaving a tiny mark on Romanian folk mythology and iconography.
An interesting fact is that in 1688, following an anti-Ottoman uprising, a group of Bulgarian Catholics from the north and north-west of Bulgaria took refuge on the northern side of the Danube, in the Banat area, where they still live to this day.
They are the only ethnic Bulgarians who use the latin alphabet and have a distinct dialect. They are called “pavlikens” or “palkene” and descend from the Paulicians-Bogomils from Bulgaria who prefered to convert to Roman Catholicism.
The Bogomils of the Balkans have vanished into the shadows of history, but their ideas and beliefs penetrated deep into Western Europe. There they were known by many names that referred to the same cult: Cathars, Albigensians, Patarenes, but especially Bulgarians, a denomination which didn’t point out their ethnical origin, but rather showed the direct link between the Cathar Heresy and the Bogomils.
Pope Innocent III started the Albigensian Crusade against them, an extremely violent campaign which led to the radical elimination of the Cathar cult from France and in which the infamous Inquisition has its origin.
The Bogomils disappeared, but their persecution did not end. In northern Greece, in the region of Macedonia, there are a few Bogomil cemeteries which resemble those in Bosnia and the Cathar monuments in France. The cemeteries, however, are hard to find, as they are not classified as historical monuments and they are not part of the tourist circuit. Moreover, some of them have been destroyed by bulldozers in order to make room for the construction of churches or of new Orthodox cemeteries.
The forgotten graves near Thessaloniki
This was also the fate of the medieval Bogomil cemetery of Nea Chalkidona, near Thessaloniki. At present, the visitor may still see an almost destroyed minaret which is still standing at the entrance, a closed church dedicated to the Apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul and, after that, a vacant lot overrun by weeds, where one can see celtic crosses of various sizes spread around, some of them even reaching the height of an adult.
Most of them have fallen or are tilted, some of them are completely destroyed, broken. Beside them there are also smaller crosses bearing the symbol of the sun, one of them being probably taken during the building of the church and placed above its entrance.
As mentioned previously, the Bogomils didn’t believe in the cult of the cross, but in their attempt to hide and protect their graves from the persecutions of the authorities, of the official church and of the Orthodox population, they used the cross, albeit with an antique and particular symbolical shape, which precedes Christianity, that of the solar cross as a direct reference to Manichean Gnosticism.
Those buried there had received the light, their soul being delivered from the sinful body created by Satan and the world ruled by him.
Beside what remains of this abandoned necropolis left in the care of nature, once can notice the attempt of replacing it with a new Orthodox cemetery.
Most likely it was this attempt which would have eradicated any trace of this very mysterious place that led Melina Mercouri, the famous actress, who was at that time, in 1988, the Minister of Culture, to declare the medieval cemetery near Thessaloniki a protected site.
This abandoned necropolis, with free access, but hard to find, if one doesn’t know what to look for, has a surreal atmosphere, a mystical aura which arouses a variety of emotions in the visitor.
This Bogomil cemetery remains one of the few pieces of evidence of the existence of an entire cult which for a while dominated this part of the Balkans and which influenced the whole of Europe, its ideas even leading, according to some scholars, to the Reformation.
At present, the Bogomils are no longer a threat to anybody, but they can become a history lesson for the entire world. A lesson which, at present, is quite unknown.